Sunday, April 3, 2016

Gameday Sunday: Zone of the Enders HD Collection

Young boy finds giant robot, unwillingly becomes pilot of said robot, and has to use his untested combat skills to save the planet. It’s a tried and true formula associated with mecha anime, just look at Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross, and Neon Genesis Evangelion for the landmarks of the genre. It’s ironic that, considering how many mecha anime titles there are, so few are ever given worthy video game tie-ins.

In short, there’s a surprising lack of mecha games and the ones that do exist are rarely released outside of Japan. For the few that have been given an international release, 2001’s Zone of the Enders for the PlayStation 2 ranks near the top, followed closely by its superior 2003 sequel, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. Fortunately, for those who would rather not dust off their aging PS2 consoles, Konami has paired the two games together in a stunning high-definition collection with trophy/achievement support.

The story takes place during 22nd century, at which point humanity has colonized Mars, Jupiter, and built habitable space colonies. Not all is peaceful however; Earth is oppressive towards the space-dwellers, leading a radical faction called BAHRAM to take military action. The first game follows the journey of Leo Stenbuck, a young boy caught in the ensuing conflict who fits the anime hero cliché perfectly. He inadvertently becomes the pilot of a mecha, or Orbital Frame as they’re called, named Jehuty. As one might gather, Leo – and the player – is thrust upon a space-faring mission to destroy as many enemy Orbital Frames as possible. 

Back in 2001 Zone of the Enders was a mind-blowing experience. The control layout and ease of combat made the player feel like they were in the midst of true mecha combat, it was a glorious feeling. Sadly, over a decade later, the feeling isn’t as captivating. At times it’s still fun, no doubt, but in an era when video games are capable of imbuing thought provoking, intricate stories upon the player, Zone of the Enders falls short. This is all the more surprising since the game was produced by Hideo Kojima, creator of the brilliant Metal Gear Solid series. Regardless, Zone feels shallow and lacks the powerful themes that Kojima is known for incorporating into his titles. There’s some minor touches about morality since Leo refuses to kill, but since most of the enemies are unmanned A.I., it’s never a prominent issue.

Back in 2001 Z.O.E. was praised for its level design, controls, and graphics, but lauded for its brief campaign, and rightfully so – it can be beaten in just a few hours, and there’s little replay value to be found. Yet, in 2013, the short playtime actually helps Zone of the Enders simply because its problematic nature will pass by quickly. Many of the missions feel uninspired, the enemies aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time the plot feels like it’s finally moving forward, the game abruptly ends. It’s also a very depressing story, Leo is a walking death magnet and there’s little respite or relief for the character at any point.

But all is not lost. Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner is the sole reason for purchasing this collection. The sequel improves upon every shortcoming found in the original. Even the plot avoids formulaic expectations by replacing Leo with Dingo Egret, a former BAHRAM pilot and grizzled veteran. Dingo’s plight adds a level of maturity to the story and it aids the sequel significantly. The graphics have been improved, the controls tightened, and a greater variety of power ups, enemies, and locations were thrown into the mix. The 2nd Runner could very well be one of the best mecha games ever created with its unique blend of gameplay, though it didn’t fare as well as the original Z.O.E. did upon initial release. Prior to the HD Collection hitting shelves, The 2nd Runner had become a hard-to-find title for the PlayStation 2. 

The HD Collection is a must own for mecha fans, if only for a shot at playing The 2nd Runner in high-definition. It’s a rare chance to actually feel like you’re piloting a giant robot, an experience only rivaled by Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space (also originally released for the PS2). The re-release also includes a newly animated intro which is pretty neat, but probably won’t warrant more than a viewing or two. 

The Zone of the Enders HD Collection was released back in October 2012, but it’s worth the review since it received very little fanfare due to blockbuster game releases like Assassins Creed 3 coming out at the time. A limited edition was also made available, though more difficult to come across now, that included a softbound artbook and a CD soundtrack loaded with remixes. 

The artbook is fantastic, with stunning concept and promotional art, much of it I had never seen before. There's some great early sketches of the mech designs, as well as some early character work. 

It's a shame that more video game limited editions don't come with artbooks. I'd much prefer them over throwaway "exclusive" DLC, or whatnot. 

The pages are glossy and the art is crisp. It really made the limited edition worth purchasing. 

The CD, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about. It features 7 tracks and an extra bonus tracks, all of which are remixes. The music isn't bad, but I only listened to it once and have no real desire to return to it. 

When this game was first released owners reported that the PS3 version of the HD Collection was marred by a slogging framerate. I’ve personally found no issues, but I may have played after one of the update patches fixed it.

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